Sharon Pratt was feeling reflective as she stabbed her fork into a fillet of salmon over lunch. It was Election Day, and her small frame was tucked into a booth at Cafe du Parc in downtown Washington.
By nightfall, Muriel Bowser would be declared the victor in the D.C. mayoral election, the second woman to win the office. The first — two decades earlier — was Pratt.
Theirs remains an exclusive club. Only 18 percent of cities with more than 30,000 residents are led by women, a rate that has been relatively unchanged in the past 20 years, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Pratt recalled the exhilaration of her historic win and the struggle to hang on to power that soon followed.
“Notions of power, symbols of power are always very masculine,” Pratt said. She’s 5-foot-2 and favored dresses and heels in office.
“It’s very subtle and, because of that, it is so insidious,” she continued, referring to societal ideas “about what a woman should do and shouldn’t do.”
But before the chauvinism she’d encounter in office — including being tapped on the rear end by a businessman (more on that later) — she remembered her uncharacteristic burst of enthusiasm after it seemed apparent that she would win.
She was driving her Saab down 16th Street and listening to talk radio when the first election returns came in. She was in the lead.
“I remember I hit the brakes, jumped out of the car and did a victory sign, and all of these cars stopped and honked,” said Pratt, who described her personality as one that better suits a political adviser than a candidate.
She took office in 1991, when there were so few women leading cities that no one even bothered to count them. Pratt, who had never run for office, was elected by Washingtonians looking for change soon after Mayor Marion Barry was arrested on charges of possession of cocaine at the downtown Vista International Hotel.
The swirl of circumstances and Pratt’s vision of a more “cosmopolitan” D.C. propelled her unlikely run to victory, but once she took office she was met with serious challenges. HIV/AIDS and gang violence swept the city. Pratt was intent on downsizing city government, which did not win her support. When she ran for reelection, she won just 13 percent of the vote in the city’s Democratic primary.
But there is no question that she broke ground.
She’s congratulatory of Bowser, whom she supported in the general election, but thinks it’s unfortunate that it took so long for another woman to occupy the mayor’s office. Of the 1,351 mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000, only 249 are women. Black women make up an even smaller share: As of this summer they were leading only 26 cities, according to a report by the Center for American Women and Politics.
“In big cities, these are powerful positions,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “Seeing a woman as the person in power is not normalized in our thinking yet.”
Pratt nodded when she was told of the statistic and Dittmar’s observations. She lived it.
Pratt had been a business executive and was an outsider to city government. When she took the helm she immediately clashed with members of the D.C. council, some of whom she had run against. She felt their disappointing looks when they had to deal with her.
“Sometimes I felt — especially with the men on the council — they felt they’d have a chance to have this one-on-one meeting with the mayor, and they had visions of it” that included “cigar smoke and power sharing,” recalled Pratt. “And here was this person in heels and a dress.”
Following a meeting with Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke in which Pratt was attempting to negotiate a deal to keep his franchise in the city, she said he asked for a hug because it looked as if a deal was close. She gave him an embrace, but “then he leaned over and patted me on the rear.” (At the time, Cooke said it was a pat on the back.)
During lunch, Pratt seemed to be transported back to that moment. She stopped sipping her jasmine green tea and looked up. “The temerity to think he could do this. It didn’t serve any purpose to haul off and hit him,” said Pratt, who has run a consulting firm in the District for the past 12 years. “I just pushed him. I mean, the temerity!”
Female mayors across the country share similar stories.
Despite the relatively few women serving as mayor, it has been the most accessible pipeline to executive leadership, said Mirya Holman, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. The first known woman to serve in elected political office in the United States was a female mayor in Kansas: Susanna Salter led the small town of Argonia in 1887.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker is another trailblazer. She presides over a city of 2.2 million residents, the largest city led by a woman. And she has been reelected twice since 2010. She’s the city’s second female mayor — following Kathy Whitmire — and also one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city.
When asked whether she has faced challenges because she is a woman, she replied, “Where do you start?”
“I don’t like throwing around words like sexism. I have been a successful politician for a very long time, but women are treated differently on the campaign trail than men,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s an inordinate amount of attention paid to our appearance. There are still biases in the public mind of women as commander in chief. No one asks a male politician who is going to take care of their kids.”
Parker oversees the police force in her city and won election with a blunt-talking approach and a pledge to get Houston’s financial house in order. Still, she counts on one hand big-city mayors who are women: Baltimore’s Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, San Antonio’s Ivy Taylor and Betsy Price, the mayor of Fort Worth. (It is the major Southern cities that have elected female mayors in recent years. Neither New York nor Los Angeles have elected women as mayor.)
Parker had a more traditional road to the office than Pratt. Like Bowser, Parker was a community activist before running for city council and becoming city controller.
“We all came from inside, so voters knew us,” Parker said.
That helped pave the way, but Parker can see there are aspects of the job that make others uncomfortable with a woman in charge. For example, Houston often hosts visiting heads of state. With a male mayor, the visitor knows the protocol: a firm handshake.
Parker said she often is met with “an awkward pause.” She imagines the other person is thinking: “Is it a hug? Is it a kiss on the cheek? Is it a handshake?”
She prefers a handshake.
These are the sorts of topics female mayors sometimes discuss. Parker has twice hosted Bowser in Houston. They talked about what it was like running for office as women, navigating the politics to win a race and running big cities. “Because there are so few of us, we tend to recognize each other and support each other,” Parker said.
There wasn’t much of a support network in Pratt’s day.
Pratt, who during lunch called herself a “woman of her generation,” said the slights and some critiques of her appearance got to her. The constant battle for power was wearing. Female politicians should “have the skin of a rhinoceros,” she said, but that was a quality she did not possess.
Bowser, however, has a fuller grip on her own power, Pratt said, praising both the mayor-elect and the influence of Pratt’s contemporaries.
“I do think younger women, a la Muriel, have had the benefit of seeing women in those positions,” Pratt said as she finished her meal, “and that has a transformative effect.”